The Mending Project

The Mending Project 1 -- 4/28/15

Perhaps you have come across examples of a new variety of art, call it performance art, participatory installations or relational aesthetics, in which the artist has various social interactions with the public that constitute the "art."  One of the long-time practitioners in this genre is Lee Mingwei, born in Taiwan, educated in the US and about to move from New York to Paris.

In one project, Lee cooked and ate dinner every night in the museum with a visitor.  In another, he and a visitor spent the night in the museum, having a long conversation before sleeping, and the visitor left objects on the night table for the next night's visitor.

He also did installations in which he was not on premises, such as where different museum staffers would bring their own treasure collections to show and discuss with visitors; where visitors were invited to write letters to dead or absent loved ones; or where visitors could take a flower from the museum to give to a stranger encountered afterwards on the street.

Falling into the latter category is "The Mending Project," in which visitors are invited to bring a garment that needs repair, and an artist will mend it.  When Lee first performed this project, he was the mender/artist, but in a show that opened last week in my local museum, the Kentucky Museum of Art + Craft in Louisville, he will be absent and a bunch of volunteers will serve as the artists.

The Mending Project -- open for business

Since I've always thought of mending as an art form, and one which I love to do, I had to sign up for the project.  But going in, I confess to some ambivalence about various aspects of the operation.

First, what are the ethics of being asked to put on a show with one's name on it and then having the entire project executed by unpaid volunteers?  (I'm still chewing over the same question in regards to my other big volunteer commitment, the International Honor Quilt organized by Judy Chicago.)

Second, is it bait-and-switch to offer to mend somebody's garment and not actually do so in a functional manner?  We're hand-stitching with shiny polyester embroidery thread, which may hold up just fine for a little hole on the collar but isn't going to accomplish much if you ripped the seam on the seat of your pants.

I decided to attend the volunteer training program -- the only opportunity to actually meet Lee in person -- and sign up for a couple of shifts as an artist/mender, and see how I felt about it. I'll report on how it's going in subsequent posts.

The Mending Project 2 -- 5/1/15

I'm working as a volunteer in "the Mending Project," an installation under the aegis of artist Lee Mingwei at the Kentucky Museum of Art + Craft in Louisville.  He will not be here during the exhibit, but came to town last week to set things up and hold a training session for the volunteers.

Here's Lee, surrounded by volunteers, pointing to one of the first garments to be mended.

Visitors walk in, sit down at the table and give you their garments to mend.  The first thing you do is ask the visitor to tell you about the garment.  Lee explained, "It's important for them to share the story of their garment; is there a personal history or memory behind it?"

When he conducted this project in other venues he heard many remarkable stories, such as a woman who brought a suit made by her grandmother, a concentration-camp survivor, and a soldier who brought the pair of camo fatigues that he was wearing when he was shot (complete with bloodstain).

He also had strange moments, as when a woman reached up under her blouse, unhooked her bra, wiggled out of it and handed it to him to be mended, since the underwire was coming loose.  (He couldn't figure out how to fix it.)  He told us that we're allowed to decline any garment that makes us feel uncomfortable, setting off a flood of silent speculation as to just what sort of garment that might be.

If a visitor asks, "Are you the artist?" Lee says to say yes, "if you feel comfortable saying that."

"When you're sitting in that chair it's your project," he said.  "I hope (the visitors) don't tell you what to do.  You're giving a gift to them; the receiver doesn't get to decide."

He compared his work to that of the performance artist Marina Abramovic, who famously sat silently in the Museum of Modern Art for 736 hours while one visitor at a time sat silently across the table and looked into her eyes.  "If it's Marina it has to be Marina sitting there," Lee said, "but if it's me it doesn't matter.  The most important thing is a stranger sitting there doing a generosity to another stranger."

Dozens and dozens of cones of shiny polyester machine embroidery thread are displayed on the walls of the gallery as a backdrop, and installing the thread was a serious production; "We were very intentional about making it look unintentional," said Marcus Siu, the art handler who got to do all the hard work. "It's a very Zen process," Lee agreed.

Because polyester machine embroidery thread is not the material of choice for garment repair, he suggested holding three or four threads together in the needle for greater strength.  Sometimes Lee simply puts a little doodad of thread onto a garment as a decoration.   He said it would be OK for us to bring some fabric to use for patches, or to bring beads for embellishment.

I asked him whether, since the mending was not really functional, he thought of it as decorative, metaphorical, or some of both.  He replied, "It's up to you. It's very much about the moment, when you encounter the person and the garment."

The visitors sit there while the garments are mended, but are asked to leave the mended garments on the table for the duration of the show, although it's OK to let them take the garment away in special cases, such as out-of-town tourists or those who might freeze to death without their newly mended coat.  (Fat chance of that happening in Louisville between April and September.)

Those were our marching orders; I'll let you know how things work out.  Stay tuned.

The Mending Project 3 -- 5/4/15

I did my first shift as a volunteer for The Mending Project last week, and it was not particularly edifying.  I guess when it's a gorgeous spring day outside, museums always suffer, although we did have 10 or 12 people wander through -- none of them bringing garments to be mended.  I gave each of them an explanation of what the project is about and urged them to come back and bring something to be fixed.

In the first two days of the project they acquired and mended a dozen garments, most of which appeared to be owned by museum staffers, which is fine, because it would be embarrassing to sit there with nothing on the table.  I was there on the third day, and peeked at the ones that had already been fixed.

You call that a successful mend???

Whoever mended this sweater apparently got tired halfway through, so I went back and finished the job.  That was the only mending I did.

Fortunately I had brought my own art project to work on, one of my knotting constructions.  I decided to incorporate some of the shiny polyester thread from the Mending Project into my knots.

So it wasn't a wasted afternoon, but I hope there will be more activity in the future.  You know, if a performance art project happens in the forest, and no performance actually takes place, is it really art?

The Mending Project 4 -- 6/19/15

The first three shifts I worked resulted in zero mending -- the museum hasn't figured out how to get the word out that people are supposed to bring in stuff.  It was getting frustrating.

On the third shift I finally got some action by convincing a guy visiting from Seattle to let me embroider a flower on his shorts.  I had him sit on the table to my left so I could hold the shorts in my left hand and sew with my right.  Being careful not to stroke his thigh in the process.

On the fourth shift, the following evening, it was the monthly gallery hop night and there were lots of visitors.  Two of them actually brought in some mending!!!!! but I also embroidered onto three dresses.  This one belonged to a seven-year-old, with whom I had a lovely conversation about school and art.

The next two belonged to college students who are in summer school; one was taking fiber art and we talked about the role of fiber art in the greater art world.

I had problems with this one -- the shiny, slippery machine embroidery thread is really not your first choice for hand embroidery.  Not your second, third, fourth or fifth either.

The Mending Project 5 -- 7/8/15

June was a busy month for me and it's been a long time since I went to the museum to mend as part of the big performance art "Mending Project."  When I went back a week ago I was hoping that the word was starting to get out and there would have been lots of action in my absence.  But not to be.  Only five garments had been worked on in the more than three weeks since I was there.

And nobody brought anything in during my shift.  I spent fifteen minutes untangling the threads that run from the spools on the wall to the mended garments.  From reading our artist log, everybody seems to start their shift the same way.  Apparently when the mending station is untended, elves come in and mess things up.  This is not totally malicious, because it does give the volunteers something useful to do.

I did cajole some people into letting me embroider onto their garments (or camera bag).

I'm getting a little dubious about this project.  If the whole point is for an artist to sit there and chat with people as their garments are mended, then it's not accomplishing much if 90 percent of the garments are left off by museum staffers who are too busy museum staffing to sit there and chat.

I'm going to have another couple of weeks hiatus while I do some vacationing.  I'll sign up for a shift as soon as I come back, and then reevaluate my participation.   And keep you posted, of course.

The Mending Project 6 -- 8/14/15

I've been writing about the mending project at Kentucky Museum of Art + Craft, and promised to keep you posted about my ambivalent feelings.  On the one hand, I am delighted with the concept that mending can be art, and intrigued by being able to participate in a Work Of Art by an honest-to-pete Famous Artist.  On the other, I am disappointed that the project has never really gotten off the ground, and have my own suspicions about why it hasn't (in a nutshell, poor planning plus poor execution).

I've worked two shifts since almost a month off for various travels, and when I returned there weren't all that many more garments on the pile than when I left.  Remember, the project has been going since the last week in April!

One day I kept busy by sewing flowers onto the hems of girls' dresses, which is always fun because they are so easily impressed.  With one little girl we talked about how old you have to be to learn to sew (I told her I learned hand-stitching when I was about five, and sewing machine when I was seven) and she allowed that maybe she would try to do it when she got old enough.

The second day I was working during a poetry slam held in the downstairs gallery.  The museum representative spoke briefly to invite people to check out the art show while they were there, and specifically mentioned the mending.  At intermission, one young woman bounded up the stairs and plonked down in the chair, taking off her much-worn flannel shirt as she approached.  She explained that she had lost both wrist buttons some time ago and had sewed the cuffs shut, but hadn't done a very good job of it and could I re-fix them.

So during the second half of the event, I mended her cuffs while listening to poetry from below.

The Mending Project 7 -- 9/22/15

I've written through the summer about an installation at the Kentucky Museum of Art + Craft in which volunteers mend or embellish garments brought (or worn) in by visitors.  The project bears the name of a certifiably Famous International Artist, Lee Mingwei, but he was only there to oversee the setup before leaving town for a big career retrospective in Taiwan, his birthplace.

Since then, the art, or performance, or whatever you want to call it, has been conducted by the locals, including me.  I've been a bit doubtful all along as to the worth of this project.  Last week I was required to consolidate my thoughts in preparation for a program at our local fiber and textile art group.  Ramona Lindsay, the education director of KMAC, is also a member of our group and she participated in the discussion, which gave us a view from the other side of the institutional landscape.

We all agreed that "relational aesthetics," the critic-speak for this kind of art installation, is something that traditional museum-goers may not understand.  It's very postmodern, with "art" being defined far more broadly than the making of objects; now "art" includes a wide variety of encounters between artists and others.  This may go over just fine in Brooklyn, where the hipsters are up on postmodernism, but not so much in Louisville.  Not only is our proportion of postmodern hipsters much lower than Brooklyn's, but we're applying the proportion to a much smaller population.

Lee envisioned that the encounter would be a meeting and conversation prompted by the presentation of a garment to be mended, and while the mending was going on, bonds and connections would be forged.  But that's not what happened.  Most of the actual mending we did was on garments brought in by museum staffers (who couldn't sit and talk with me) or sent in by our own friends to be mended in absentia.

What happened instead was that we started sewing embellishments onto the clothing of people who visited, and had lovely conversations with them.  Or we just had the lovely conversations with no mending at all involved.

Ramona said at the program that the staff and curators had been closely tracking the way the project was morphing into Plan B, and they were happy about the way the visitors were responding.

I asked her to take back a challenge to her museum colleagues: why not do a similar project again, except eliminate the high-priced Famous International Artist and just contract directly with the local volunteers, who were doing all the work.

The Mending Project 8 -- 9/24/15

Volunteers at the Mending Project kept a log of what we did, and one of the first things I would do when arriving for a shift would be to read the log and see what happened since I was there last.  One afternoon I read the following:

"This is such a strange log of people sitting in the same chair doing nothing.  There may not be any mending, but what IS happening?"

Great question.  As I was thinking about it, I noticed that somebody had brought in a bunch of upholstery swatches; in fact, I used one to patch a pair of jeans that had been left on the table.

I had an idea: I detached one of the small swatches and started to stitch on it, and left it with a challenge to the other volunteers:

"To my fellow menders:  I read Evan's log entry for 6-4-15 where he asks "What IS happening?"  I think we are building a community -- not with people in torn pants, but among ourselves!  If you're not mending, would you add some stitches to my swatch and make collaborative art?  Thanks!"

And over the next three months, they did, turning the busy but drab swatch into an explosion of color from the shiny mending threads.  By the time the show closed early this month, the swatch looked pretty flashy.

I want to mount it and keep it as a -- gasp -- object!!!! even though that isn't very post-modern of me.  It will take a little work to make it lie flat (that isn't very post-modern either, worrying about craftsmanship) so maybe I'll stretch it a bit and stitch it to a canvas.

The Mending Project 9  -- 9/28/15

I promise this will be the last time I write about The Mending Project.  Faithful readers will recall that I've been dithering since Day 1 about whether it was worthwhile, not to mention about whether it was art.  I mentioned the other day that the concept of art being the making of objects is a definition way too restrictive for the postmodernists, and that includes a lot of museum directors and curators.

That's why you'll see museums all over the place, not just here, trying to become places for encounters. While I was on duty mending, I observed a poetry slam as well as three different "family fun" days on which special activities were offered.  Our museum has converted a bunch of prime real estate into a "maker space" where kids can make stuff.  (Oh wait, making stuff is so nonpostmodern.... I guess it's OK for kids, if not for artists.)

The curators of our show say they were thrilled at all the conversations between menders and visitors, and think they might want to do something similar in the future.

That's all fine, and I guess any society benefits when strangers are able to have pleasant conversations with one another.  But is this supposed to happen in a museum as opposed to a church, library or community center?  A big part of me thinks that facilitation of conversation is too trivial, too universal, too undifferentiated, too generic to warrant rewriting the mission of a museum.  There should be some qualitative difference between being a volunteer at a museum and being a volunteer at a nursing home, for instance.

I enjoy and take pride in the various occasions where I can spend some pleasant time with a stranger, especially if the conversation can go beyond the most superficial level.  But I don't call it art.  I am a maker, always have been, always will be as long as I can hold a needle or a paintbrush or a scissors or a glue gun.  When I can't make things I don't think I qualify as an artist.

It's oh so trendy for the hipsters and the critics and the curators to call it art when "artists" hang out with other people or invite some people over for dinner or set out paper for people to write letters on or tell the museum guards to shout out headlines from the newspaper.  I'm usually pretty open to offbeat and weird things being defined as art, but my tolerance stops before this point.

So my bottom line on The Mending Project is that first, the installation -- the beautiful walls of thread and the (small) piles of mended garments -- is probably art.  It belongs in a museum; it was nice to look at.  Maybe not the strongest work you'll ever see in a museum, but I've seen worse.

OK, this is art

Second, when the menders stitched onto garments, either the ones that got piled on the table or the ones that were worn out the door, it might or might not be art.  Even though I would not define it as art when I mend my son's shorts, I guess I'll give our production a grudging pass, because it was done while sitting in the real-art installation.

maybe art, if you're feeling charitable

definitely not art

Third, having nice conversations with people is not art, even if it's done while sitting in the real-art installation.

By these definitions, of the 30 hours I spent on duty in the museum, I was probably making art for less than 10, and most of them were spent on things that I had brought in myself, unrelated to mending.  The project did prompt me to do a lot of serious thinking and questioning about what is art and what I think is valid for me do do as an artist.  But on balance I think the project stacks up as a waste of my time, not to mention a wasted opportunity for the museum in general.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.  What do you think?  Was I nuts to spend so much of my summer on this project?

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